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Swans, bungalows, waterfalls - all on a row house

Walking through the air-conditioned Meeting House Gallery to see the exhibit "Picture Windows: The Painted Screens of Baltimore," you'll find yourself thinking about a distant era when un-air-conditioned houses baked in the summer sun.

Rowhouse residents seeking relief would open their windows and hope for a cool breeze. They installed metal screens on their windows, hoping to let the breeze in and keep the bugs out.

There isn't much privacy in a city neighborhood, especially when the screened windows essentially allow people on the outside to look inside. That's why it was so ingenious when artists in East Baltimore got the idea 100 years ago to paint pastoral scenes on those window screens.

The screens were painted in such a way that the house's inhabitants could look through them and watch the passing street life, while people out on the street only saw the painted screens and could not see through them and into the house.

This painting tradition has been preserved and perpetuated, because the current exhibit mostly displays screens painted by contemporary artists.

Organized in conjunction with the Columbia Festival of the Arts, this exhibit brings a Baltimore folk art tradition to a Columbia art gallery. It follows a recent exhibit on the same subject at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore City, as well as a recently published book by Maryland folklore expert Elaine Eff.

A good way to get grounded in this subject is to consider several paintings by Dee Herget near the entrance to the show. In "Rowhouse," she depicts an East Baltimore neighborhood defined by its compact rowhouses. Your attention is drawn to one rowhouse in particular, because its front door and all of its windows are covered by painted screens. Moreover, there's a woman scrubbing this otherwise modest rowhouse's marble steps.

Herget presents a view outside the immediate neighborhood in "Cityscape," whose varied urban imagery includes the National Aquarium and other modern landmarks around the Inner Harbor.

And, Herget also has an example of the single most common subject favored by screen painters. "Red Bungalow" is an idealized view of a red-roofed house in the country. It's such a peaceful scene that the two swans in a placid body of water seem right at home.

Numerous other artists work minor variations on the "Red Bungalow" motif. Brenda Foehrkolb's "Red Barn Garden," for instance, makes it clear that a barn will serve as well as a house for subject matter.

Upping the ante on the basic image, Tom Lipka's "Double Red Bungalow with Falls" would impress any passing pedestrian with its relatively large bungalow, imposing waterfall, lofty mountains, and four swans in a pond.

Yet another example of how frequently one encounters the red bungalow is John Oktavec's "Self Portrait," in which the smiling artist holds up a painting of, yes, a red bungalow. Another painting by Oktavec, "Lighthouse," presents another subject often done by these largely self-taught artists.

Although the working-class residents of East Baltimore's densely populated neighborhoods were mostly surrounded by concrete, asphalt and Formstone during the mid-20th-century heyday of the painted screen phenomenon, the screens themselves allowed a visual vacation via red bungalows in the countryside and lighthouses on the seashore.

Today's screen painters continue to make similar escapist paintings, as well as others that comment more directly on life in our land of pleasant living. John R. Iampieri's "O.C. Beach Scene" takes you down the ocean, and "Ravens" celebrates the hometown football team. These are values worth displaying in your front window.

"Picture Windows: The Painted Screens of Baltimore" runs through Aug. 9 at the Meeting House Gallery, in the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center at 5885 Robert Oliver Place in Columbia. Call 410-730-4090 or go to http://www.themeetinghousegallery.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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